Your New Year’s resolution is dead, so here are three steps to get back on track to meeting your goals

No eye-rolling—this could actually be you in 2017.
No eye-rolling—this could actually be you in 2017.
Image: AP Photo/Andres Kudacki
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New Year’s is already a distant memory and there’s plenty of uncertainty about what 2017 will bring. But one thing is for sure. We’re already well past making resolutions. Some of us never started, and others gave up too quickly.

We convince ourselves we don’t have enough time, money, or other resources to follow through on our resolutions—whether our intentions are to get healthier, become more organized, save money, reconnect with loved ones, or try a new hobby. But there’s good news. If we reject this “never enough” thinking, research shows, we can get on a path to fulfillment and really make 2017 a year of personal change.  

As for how to get back on track, first, be deliberate about your ultimate goal. People have a tendency to pursue things they can count: the number of steps taken daily, the hours spent with a child, or the figures in a budget. Tracking numerical progress is straightforward, but it also obscures our ultimate objectives: becoming healthier, strengthening a relationship, or completing a project.

University of Chicago professor Christopher Hsee and his colleagues discovered that people irrationally overwork to pursue goals they don’t actually want to pursue. While research participants listened to pleasant music, he offered them the opportunity to earn chocolate in exchange for a little “work.” Each time participants pressed a button, their leisurely music was interrupted by the unpleasant sound of a saw cutting wood, but they also earned a Dove bar.

Hsee found that people regularly over-earned what they could eat (participants were told they couldn’t take the chocolate home).

To intervene, Hsee restricted how much chocolate people could earn. This forced them to re-consider the mindless pursuit of a goal they never actually wanted. Their happiness levels soared. Sometimes it’s tempting to run up the score. But when that’s not our goal, we burn ourselves out without getting any closer to what we want.

Next, stop comparing yourself to others. Psychological research shows that we understand ourselves relative to family, friends, and even strangers. Sometimes these gaps motivate change (think about the fitter person you want to emulate) but other times they leave us despondent (think again about that fitter person). To make matters worse, when we do improve, we find new comparison groups–the even fitter person. It’s hard to see progress because we’re constantly upping the stakes.

Several years ago, I vowed to become more environmentally responsible. I was in the midst of research studying environmentalists with Katy DeCelles at the University of Toronto and Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan. I quickly realized my efforts to recycle and minimize waste were amateur. The people in our studies risked their careers daily to convince their organizations to do more for the environment. They spent their evenings assessing the carbon footprint from their dinners. I felt completely inadequate.

But I wasn’t alone. Surprisingly, the environmentalists also experienced the same doubts. Despite all that they did, they looked around and saw others taking even greater actions. Overlooking their remarkable efforts, they instead wondered what they could be doing with “more”—more money to spend on a greener home or car, more time to do greater outreach to friends and family, and a “bigger” job to make a bigger difference.

By focusing on what they lacked, the activists ended up missing easy chances to do more with what they already had. The evidence was striking. We gave participants some relatively straightforward ways to help the environment–recycling a bottle or signing a pledge to turn off their lights for an hour. Many of the hardworking environmentalists overlooked these chances because they were burdened by high self-doubts without correspondingly high positive self-evaluations.

The third strategy is to start moving. Undoubtedly, it’s hard to reach our goals if we stand still. Some people like to jump in and make things happens. Others require carefully laid out plans before acting. Although we frequently credit careful planning for our successes, remember that the biggest factor in meeting goals is what we do, not what we plan to do. Even when we take small steps—and even if they misfire—we show ourselves that maintaining the status quo is not an option. An added benefit: The more we do, the more we learn, allowing us to make adjustments and right our path to our goals.

The poet Miroslav Holub offers a terrific illustration of how far moving gets us. He writes of two Hungarian soldiers who became separated from their unit during a mission and dangerously lost in the frozen Alps. They went missing for days, but miraculously returned unharmed. Their relieved lieutenant asked how they survived.  One soldier pulled out a map in his pocket. When the lieutenant examined the map, he was truly dumbfounded.

It was a map of another mountain range–the Pyrenees.

Management scholar Karl Weick concludes from this tale that when trying to improve on the status quo “any old map will do.” The wrong map calmed the soldiers down and eventually got them moving. While on the move, they remained determined to return safely and learned, through their actions, how to reach their goals. Even though we typically credit our “maps”–our professional and personal plans–for fostering change, our actions are what matters most. 

Let’s not wait any longer to make 2017 a year of meaningful change. It’s always a good time to start doing more with what we already have, and getting started will help us live and work better–great accomplishments at any time of the year.